It’s standardized test week at school and she’s complaining of a stomachache…again. If this happens every time there’s a test of any kind, maybe she’s experiencing test anxiety, a mix of paralyzing fear and excessive self-doubt. “These feelings interfere with a child’s ability to perform,” says Talia Filippelli, a psychotherapist and founder of Starr Therapy, based in Hoboken and Englewood.
Spotting the Signs
“Children don’t always know they’re anxious, so they exhibit it in different ways,” explains Elisa Nebolsine, cognitive behavioral therapist and founder of CBT for Kids in McLean, Virginia. “To get out of an uncomfortable situation, they do what they can.”
Classic signs of test anxiety are physical, like headaches, nervousness, “butterflies” and vomiting, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Some kids can also have feelings of anger, fear or helplessness, and might have a hard time concentrating.
Who’s Most Likely to Get Anxious?
Is there a certain type of kid who tends to worry more than others? Here’s what to look for:
Perfectionists. “Children who are perfectionists think in all or nothing terms,” says Filippelli. “They have difficulty accepting their mistakes and forgiving themselves when they happen. This adds unnecessary pressure and makes test-taking a frightening, anxiety-provoking experience.”
Despite having the best intentions, parents project their own inner fears onto a child without realizing the potential emotional effects. “Pressuring a child to get a good grade in order to gain acceptance to a certain high school may inadvertently worsen a child’s perfectionist mindset,” Filippelli explains.
Kids whose parents are perfectionists. Being more self-forgiving as an adult can only benefit your kid, says Filippelli. “Be satisfied with your child’s best,” she advises. Stress is contagious. When parents or siblings are highly stressed, those emotions take a toll.
Kids who tend to be anxious. “Because of cognitive and emotional development, the peak period of anxiety is between the ages of seven to nine,” explains Nebolsine. “Kids start to learn and understand the scary things in life and realize that bad things can happen. Coincidentally, at a time when this age group is most vulnerable to anxiety, they are beginning standardized and regular testing in school.”
Kids who are competitive with siblings. “It’s inevitable that parents compare their children to one another,” says Filippelli. “Parents might see stronger sibling relationships if they teach their children to be each other’s cheerleaders, not rivals.”
Kids with a learning disability, like ADHD or dyslexia. Kids with underlying conditions may have a hard time focusing, concentrating or expressing themselves. These kids may need extra time to take tests or to take them orally. Test anxiety can also be exacerbated in kids who have trouble separating from their parents, problems in social situations or a predisposition to anxiety based on family history.
STRATEGIES TO COMBAT STRESS
Think your kid is having test anxiety? Try these expert-recommended tips:
Teach your kid to identify the body’s stress triggers. “We ask children to draw a picture of a body and circle the parts that bother them before taking a test,” says Filippelli. “We teach them to become aware of warning signs, like stomachaches, and then practice relaxation techniques to reverse the stress and its physical and emotional impacts. Children learn how to control stressors that were previously controlling them. It’s a powerful confidence-building process.”
Don’t dismiss your kid’s feelings. “While reassurance is natural and helpful in many situations, it doesn’t help with anxiety,” warns Nebolsine. “Get specific. Help the child identify the problem. As a parent, you can ask: What are you most afraid of? What is the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it to happen? How would you cope with it if it did?”
Try relaxation techniques. Nebolsine advises kids to learn to take deep breaths (also known as belly breathing) to reassure themselves that everything is okay. Four-seven-eight breathing is another relaxation technique, says Filippelli. “It takes the child’s focus off the test and places it onto this breathing pattern: Place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth and inhale by belly breathing to the count of four. Then hold the breath for a count of seven. Exhale to the count of eight while keeping the tongue on the roof of the mouth.”
Help him realize he can tolerate tough situations. “Reinforce that this uncomfortable feeling only lasts so long and he can handle it,” advises Nebolsine. “When children face their fears, they limit them. If not, they perpetuate them.”
Help your kid put things in perspective. “Develop an anxiety scale with your child,” says Nebolsine. “What would be number one, the easiest problem to handle? What would be number ten, the worst? Ask the child to grade the situation producing the anxiety on a scale of one to ten.”
Experiment with visualization. “We ask children to close their eyes and think of a safe place, like cuddling with their parents in bed,” says Filippelli. “Then, we talk them through this scene, asking what they see, smell, taste, feel and hear. This turns up the volume on their senses and tricks the body to believe it’s in that place. The body acts accordingly and sends a signal to the brain that the child is safe and can now relax. It’s amazingly powerful.”
Practice taking fun, timed tests at home. “Start by giving your child a one-minute timed test on something easy, like dogs.” says Nebolsine. “Reinforce her behavior with a fun reward, like playing a game. Gradually increase the length of time and difficulty of subject matter. In order for this to be effective, however, the child has to be on board that this is a way of helping her deal with the problem.”
Talk with your kid’s teacher. An understanding teacher can help anxiety with a reassuring smile, words of encouragement or by cueing an anxious kid to take deep breaths, says Nebolsine.
When to See a Professional
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and your kid is still anxious, missing school and routinely underperforming on tests even when she knows her stuff, you may want to consider professional help. “Talking over such problems with a professional arms a child with the life skills needed to function well, no matter what happens,” says Filippelli. “The earlier a child acquires these tools, the better.”
New Orleans native Karen B. Gibbs is a freelance writer specializing in lifestyle.